Title: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)
Director: Paul Mazursky
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, Elizabeth Pena, Evan Richards, Little Richard
In Down and Out in Beverly Hills we meet Jerry Baskin, a homeless man who is happy talking all day to his dog ‘Kerouac’. Jerry lives a care free life being a beach bum, no worries, no responsibilities. Everything seems fine and dandy for Jerry until one day, as Jerry sleeps, Kerouac decides to go with a nice lady who offers him some food. Suddenly, Jerry is left without his dog pal and life turns meaningless for him. Apparently Kerouac was the only thing bringing Jerry any joy. So, with all this sadness and despair in mind, Jerry decides he wants to commit suicide, so he walks into a random house in Beverly Hills, empties his lungs and jumps into the pool, hoping to sink to the bottom and die a quick death. Unfortunately, Mr. Whiteman, the owner of the house sees him jumping and decides to save Jerry’s life. From there on in, Mr. Whiteman decides to take Jerry in for a couple of days, until he can stand on his own two feet, turns out Jerry stays far longer than a couple of days!
Down and Out in Beverly Hills reminded me in some ways of Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q (2001), a film in which an ominous character simply and inexplicably becomes a silent observer of a Japanese family, where this character came from no one knows, but there he is. The purpose of this kind of character is to analyze the family unit from an objective standpoint, by having a stranger visit them. In Down and Out in Beverly Hills it’s Jerry Baskin (Nick Nolte), a homeless person, who gets to visit a multi millionaire Beverly Hills family, The Whitemans. In this family, everyone is unhappy, the wife is unhappy with her sex life, the husband is having an affair with his Latin maid, the kid wants to tell his parents he is gay but doesn’t know how to go about it, the daughter is anorexic…each family member has got some sort of issue going on that they have to resolve, and Jerry, like some sort of god sent thing, is here to tell them what they need to do to be happy, he might be homeless, but he knows a thing or two about life. Jerry starts spewing advice left and right, making everyone happier after they listen to him. In this way, the film also reminded me of What About Bob? (1991) which coincidentally also starred Richard Dreyfuss as the father of yet another high class dysfunctional family. What About Bob? Actually reworks the same basic premise of Down and Out in Beverly Hills, but instead of a bum, it’s a crazy guy that invades the family unit. I guess it could also be compared to films like Trading Places (1983) and Brewsters Millions (1985) because of the whole 'rags to riches' thing, but in my opinion, these last two films I've just mentioned are funny and good, Down and Out in Beverly Hills is far superior.
Certain elements in the film hint at the fact that the filmmakers wanted to comment on racial issues with this film; I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the rich millionaire family in the film is called ‘The Whitemans’. Here’s an example of how this film comments on racial issues, there is a moment in which the security alarm on Dave Whiteman’s home goes off; seconds later, there are police cars, helicopters and police dogs swarming his house! It’s at that moment that Dave’s neighbor (played by Little Richard) comes out of his home screaming at the top of his lungs, complaining that the police don’t answer his calls as efficiently as they should because he is black! He gives a pretty incendiary speech about it. The Whitemans have a Hispanic live in made which Dave Whiteman is having an affair with. After she has a talk with Jerry (the bum guru who introduces her to subversive literature) she starts thinking that Mr. Whiteman only uses her, that he would never take her seriously because he considers her “third world”. Basically, this film takes the rich “conservative” white man and places him right smack in the middle of two of the biggest issues in society: race and sexual orientation. I thought it was hilarious that at one point in the film Dave Whiteman is surrounded by a homeless man, by Blacks, Chinese, Hispanics, and even a possibly gay son, so basically, the ending of the film is one gigantic smorgasbord of races and sexual orientations! A police helicopter flies by, sees the whole shebang from above and screams “what a fucking party!” I was laughing like a madman. But it’s the symbolisms that make the scene impact you, we’re all in the same boat, we’re all on the same party, let’s just have a good time.
Add to the funny and the smarts, a pitch perfect cast! Richard Dreyfuss has always been great at playing characters that lose their temper easily and here he does it again. There’s this scene where he is telling his son that he should start learning the ropes of his coat hanger business, and his son tells him that it’s not his thing to which Dave replies “You don’t like hangers? It’s hangers that clothe you and it’s hangers that feed you!” Just hilarious, but Dreyfuss doesn’t just play the hot tempered dude, his character is layered, Dave is a rich guy who’s doing some soul searching, he sees a freedom and a happiness in Jerry that he doesn’t have in his life. Same goes with Bette Midler who plays the air head wife who’s lost all passion in her life, she goes from guru, to guru looking for meaning in her life. And finally, Jerry as played by Nick Nolte is the icing on the cake. He does the bum thing great, so well that even when Dave fixes him up with a haircut and new clothes, you still see that suffering and that pain beneath the skin, in his soul. So we get all around great performances! Even the dog; ‘Matisse’ is likable, in fact, he is sometimes the most humane of all the characters.
Down and Out in Beverly Hills was based on a French film from director Jean Renoir called ‘Boudu sauve des eaux’ which translated means ‘Boudu saved from drowning’, so in many ways, this is kind of like a remake, but from what I hear, not so much. I haven’t seen Renoir’s film, but I’m guessing it has little to do with Beverly Hills. It probably just borrowed the premise and went its own way with it, good thing is I am now curious to see Renoir’s film. All in all, I’d say that Down and Out in Beverly Hills was a hilarious movie, personally, I wasn’t expecting it to be as funny as it ended up being, and I certainly didn’t expect the film to have a brain as well as some heart, 80’s comedies sometimes end up being a little too silly, but this one had just the right balance. Sadly, all too often in today’s modern comedies vulgarity or repulsive situations are mistaken for comedy, and I personally hate that. I much prefer films like Down and Out in Beverly Hills, truly funny films, with a bit of an edge and a whole lot of heart. I miss this kind of comedy, it’s the kind of comedy that John Hughes or Paul Mazursky (this films director) took pride in making, comedies that commented on social issues, but at the same time made us laugh like crazy. Very few directors do this today, comedies with a brain, so clever that you don’t even notice the themes that are being addressed, you just laugh and laugh. It’s only later that you realize, wait a second; this film was actually saying something! Truly one of the best comedies of the 80’s, if you wanna take a trip down to the 80’s and laugh a whole lot while doing it, this is the way to go.
Rating: 5 out of 5